|Eternal Frontier by Tim Flannery|
|Reviewed by Keith THOMAS on May 01, 2001|
|Flannery begins his ecological history of North America 65m years ago with the Chicxulub asteroid impact on the Yucatan Peninsula which sprayed molten rock far into the present Canada and created an atmospheric shockwave that flattened trees across the continent. North America lost 80% of its flowering plant species, most trees and the dust polluted the atmosphere so that almost all photosynthesis stopped as the planet may have entered a decade of freezing temperatures.
From here the book describes the major ecological developments through to the present, starting with how the continental drift of Australia from Antarctica and the rise of the Panamanian isthmus impacted on North America's climate. Even when writing of continental drift, Flannery's account is fast-paced.
Some will deplore Flannery's speculations, but I found them intensely stimulating. One speculation is not necessarily like another: a well-informed speculation can help, with the Ockham's Razor principle, to eliminate the more far-fetched and less well-informed speculations. On the other hand, Flannery urges us not to find evolutionary meaning in everything; coincidences do occur and "not all in nature is meaningful and informative of the evolutionary laws by which we live". Without the benefit of time as a yardstick it is difficult to distinguish dead-ends-to-be from enduring strategies.
This quote (from chapter 7) exemplifies his method of well-informed speculation:
"The lifestyles of the oreodonts have been a mystery for some time. Some possessed eyes on the top of their heads like hippos, which certain researchers have taken to indicate an aquatic life. Oreodont remains, though, are most common in windblown sediments, indicating dry conditions. New and still contentious studies focusing on well-preserved remains of animals that were presumably buried where they lived suggest that some oreodonts may have been burrowers. Some skeletons even have the remains of foetuses, usually, two, three or four, preserved in their mother's belly. Such large animals tend to have so many young only if they live a precarious life, prompting one researcher to suggest that oreodonts used those eyes atop their heads to peek over the rims of their burrows before emerging. But what kind of danger were they keeping an eye out for? The caution of the oreodonts may have been prompted by the pig-like entelodonts...."
Throughout the book Flannery lifts the lid on the growth of science - geological, ecological, biological, archaeological - and some of the liveliest current controversies. Thus he begins the second half of the book with a clear and balanced account of carbon-14 dating and the debate about whether the extinction of most American megafauna was caused by climate change or the arrival of the American Indians. Both debates have political implications for present social policy and Flannery does not, thankfully, smother his account with politically-correct euphemisms or polite obfuscation.
Chapter 23 describes the destruction of the American Indians - an eye-opener for someone like me who - as a child - played "cowboys and Indians" on the premise that the two sides were evenly matched.
Flannery is fascinated with the notion of "frontier" as was Frederick Jackson Turner who wrote about it a century earlier. Jackson thought he was documenting the closure of the North American frontier but for Flannery the frontier lived on in US popular culture.
Flannery describes how the pervasive myth of the eternally bountiful frontier has fostered a cavalier disregard for environmental laws and all other attempts to constrain profligate behaviour. A nation "conceived in liberty" actually had its cultural and political freedom underwritten by rich glacial soils, abundant water and ecological diversity. When these frontier underpinnings no longer apply, US culture will have to adapt to survive.
Flannery leads the reader to ask if North America s bountiful frontier has had an impact on more than North American culture. With the spread of American culture across the globe, has its adoption by other peoples in environments without the bounty of North America been at the cost to their environment? I should add that Flannery is careful to distinguish Canadian and Mexican from US culture where this is significant.
Flannery's second theme is his three-phase model of "founder effect", "release" and "adaptation". The founders find an ecological niche and exploit it, pushing out while the abundance lasts and in the absence of competition almost all variants make a living of some sort. "Ecological release" occurs when a species is newly arrived in its environment with few competitors and a huge variety of resources, they quickly diversify, adapt and flourish in their new conditions. In Flannery's book, the same applies to grizzly bears and to humans on the "eternal frontier". Release and adaptation is faster with humans as culture can change more rapidly than biology. When abundance diminishes, species have to adapt to their environment. Because North America is such a rich continent, Europeans have as yet experienced very little adaptation - a phase they must enter to produce a diverse and adapted North American society. He observes that Europeans are still drawn to seek frontiers to exploit (irrigating the deserts, even exploiting space - their last frontier) rather than adapting.
This review cannot hope to bring out the richness of Flannery's book. It flows so effortlessly that the reader barely notices the superscript references that follow many paragraphs which show that he has woven together his 365 sources into a seamless tale.
Flannery takes Aldo Leopold's dictum about restoring the environment to what it was to begin with and shows that the environment was always dynamic and that there was no complete ecological balance in pre-European or pre-Indian times.
This introduces the question of how the wilderness areas should be managed for the future. Toward the end of his chapter on species re-introduction, Flannery seeks to "revolutionize our rangelands management" by proposing a megafauna to recreate the more balanced ecology of 13,000 years ago: elephant (to replace the mammoth and mastodon), bison, llama, tapir, jaguar, camel and Chacoan peccary - all of which could be harvested for mutual human/megafauna/ecology benefit.
My criticisms of the book are minor and I would not like them to be taken as detracting from this otherwise positive review. The book with these deficiencies remedied would require a larger editorial team and would be a different book.
The seven-page index is adequate but has not been compiled by someone who has understood Flannery's theoretical models. It would have been more helpful, too, if all the animal and plant species mentioned in the text were included in the index. The maps are inadequate: they do not show the majority of the sites mentioned, nor the locations of the Indian tribes referred to. The addition of timelines and illustrations (even silhouettes) of all the animals covered would enrich the book.
Flannery's book has come at an opportune time. Most topically, when the US is considering the implications of the most recent census and when the Bush administration is finding its feet in terms of environmental policy and when creationist escapism is threatening scientific education in schools and universities. More significantly, because the physical and biological frontier, eternal for millions of years, has been closed for all time by the latest mass immigrant and mass exploiter: homo sapiens.|